The Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died last week aged 91, had a very varied career, straddling as his Times obituary says ‘diplomacy, politics, historical scholarship, literature and journalism’.
It was the last three that attracted me, though the first two informed them. I probably first came across him via his introduction to the Penguin edition of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, though I can remember also liking his mid-1980s book on Israel, The Seige, after which in some circles he was known as Conor Cruise O’Zion. From the Times obituary, he wrote it for much the same reason I read it, the influence of Jewish friends. Political views are usually part biography.
In 1994 I interviewed him for Policy, during my first stint as editor. We mostly talked about nationalism, which nearly 15 years on I fear may have annoyed him; presumably he was hoping to publicise his book The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke, which had recently come out in paperback. Re-reading the interview, he knew a surprising amount about Australia, commenting on the history of Catholic-Protestant relations here and praising Noel Pearson.
It’s probably nearly as long ago as that interview since I read O’Brien, and I felt embarrassed as I read the obituaries that I could not recall a single idea, insight or piece of information that I could attribute to his writings. Perhaps they are there in my memory, unattributed. But on dipping into The Great Melody, it’s clear that he was one of those writers with the talent to make reading its own reward.
Conor Cruise O’Brien, RIP.